Mr. Rehman, the Pakistani sergeant, was high on booze with his drunken comrades. They were loud and voracious and were spewing insults on the Indian army. However, in spite of all the ruckus, Rehman could hold his liquor and still function with the clinical precision of a surgeon. Therefore, when a mad man came singing around the corner with a popular Bollywood song of long ago, “Mera joota hai Japani”, he sat bolt upright. The accent was Afghan, not Punjabi. His instincts told him something has changed, something so drastic that he had to get out of there, fast. The other men were too drunk to notice, but Rehman felt it in his bones. Something was wrong, very wrong.
“I’m going to the club,” he said. “Oh yeah, the club,” echoed the drunken men, “say, hello to Minnie.” Rehman wasted no time. He cut across the moonlit cobblestones into a side alley, dark and desolate. He waited. The singing bard came around. “What’s up,” asked Rehman in a whisper. “Don’t know saab, follow me.” Rehman had no choice. He followed him through a maze of dark corners and seedy shops until he came to a dead end ramshackle building. Standing at the edge of the building was a horse driven buggy. The owner of the buggy, with a face scripted in stone, pointed to the floor of his “chariot.” It had a false bottom. Without a word, Rehman slid under it. The buggy moved. After a few hours, the burly Afghan threw a bundle down the passage to the bottom. “Change into these,” he barked. Rehman realized that they had crossed the border into India. He heard the Afghan owner speak something in Hindi and after a shuffling of papers, the buggy was allowed inside India. He quickly discarded his Pakistani uniform and changed into an Indian farmer’s clothes and quietly slipped out of the buggy. In the morning, he hitched a ride to the bustling town near the border. He ordered some tea in a roadside dhaba and waited.
Meanwhile, at the Headquarters of India’s intelligence unit, the mood was hushed, angry and sad. The head of one of their units had vanished. Two intelligence personnel sent to Pakistan were captured, tortured and sentenced to death as spies. The “spies,” as the enemy called them, had eluded the Pakistani army for several years and had passed valuable information regarding army mobilization, strategy and time of attack to the Indian army, thus saving the lives of many jawans. The head of the unit, Mr. Rathod, had voiced the suspicion that was going around in whispers that “there is a leak, a vital leak coming from a mole somewhere high up in the food chain.” To those who knew how to tune in, a new password was sent out to get them back to India. Until the leak was plugged, nobody could be trusted to protect their intelligence assets in enemy country. Rehman was the first to bail out and assume his real name, Raman Rao.
As Raman waited, a destitute man came to the dhaba. He looked around. His eyes fixed on Raman for a second, before he moved across the dhaba and took up his position under the big banyan tree facing Rupali Street. Passers-by dropped a few coins. The man kept asking every person, “Have you seen Mukesh?” When Raman walked over, he was asked the same question. “Do you know Mukesh?” Raman lingered as a flash of recognition crossed his face. This was a person he had known, the face was very familiar. Trained not to respond openly, he shook his head and went back to the dhaba. He watched the man waiting for a sign of recognition. There was none. And then it suddenly hit him. The pathan had sung a Mukesh tune. He went back to the homeless man and said, “Yes, I know Mukesh.” “How?” asked the man. Raman looked around, lowered his voice and said, “through his song.” “Ah!! Sing the song, I love to hear it.” Raman sang the first few lines, “Mera joota hai Japani ----.“ The homeless man asked, “A.R Rehman?” “Yes, originally from Hyderabad,” replied Raman Rao, then continued, “Chief of nobles, the Lion King? “Yes,” replied the destitute. Now that they had been properly introduced by passing the coded messages, the farmer and the destitute sat under the banyan tree, appearing to converse with each other. Nobody paid attention to them as they wrote on the mud under the tree passing information and promptly wiping it out. Away from the prying electronics of Wi-Fi, satellites, iphones and electronic eyes, they communicated via the humble earth.
Raman understood that the Intelligence unit chief suspected Mr. Khanduri, his immediate supervisor, as soon as pictures of K Sinha appeared in the Urdu press with torture marks all over his dead body. The Indian Government denied existence of the “spy” as the Pakistanis put it. No heads rolled as he was just an ordinary man from an ordinary home with no big connections or deep pockets. But when another agent Ajay, with deep pockets and broad connections, was also tortured and killed, waves were made and the agency was put under a microscope. The unit chief went incognito to find the source of the leaks which would have been difficult under the porous den of electronics. Before leaving he had sent a warning with a cryptic note – “back to basics.” Throughout the human links forming the backbone of espionage and communications, it meant one thing – pick up anything out of the ordinary. To men and women flirting with danger, it could make the difference between life and death and Raman had learned his lessons well. Thus as soon as an Afghan took the place of a Punjabi, he sensed something and vanished from enemy land before his cover was blown. He was very thankful to have a chief who could get him out in a very seamless and hushed manner using the most ordinary tools.
Raman asked “Why do you suspect Khanduri?” “Because, I investigated everyone from the privileged-access world of intelligence and found one man who spent a lot of money. He spent at least twice as much as he was making on his beautiful mistress. It is a long sordid story of a passion that started small but flared up like a fire out of control. The man lost his wife, his money, his family, his home and is still under the grip of the bewitching woman. He could have spilled something to her during his intimate moments. I need to find another Mukesh whom I had sent across the border to get me proof.” The two men parted with a code drawn on mud to keep track of things that they come across.
The homeless destitute continued his monologue “Did you see Mukesh?” Many people passed him by and many thought he was crazy and ignored him. That did not bother him one bit. He found more comfort in their contempt than the eulogy of his peers.
A whole week passed before a man came singing, “Mera joota hai Japani---.” Raman perked up. The singer was asked by the destitute “Did you see Mukesh?” The singing bard replied in the negative. The next day he again replied in the negative to the same question. It continued for a couple of days more. “Maybe, the Afghan is not sure about the destitute,” thought Raman. After waiting for a couple of days, Raman placed himself under the banyan tree and posed the question again, “Do you know Mukesh?” This time the Afghan opened up as he recognized Raman. Their communication was still through the medium of the mud. The pathan said that he was recruited from Peshawar as he was fluent in Hindi. He was also an aspiring actor and wanted to act in Bollywood. With his various disguises and effective histrionics, he was able to seep his way into various nooks and corners of the secret world of espionage. He scrawled the episode of Khanduri on the mud.
Khanduri’s mistress worked for the Pakistanis. She drove him into destitution and blackmailed him into revealing secrets and the identity of agents working for India. He had seen her many times talking to high officials in the embassy. He could not understand how the Indians missed this, unless of course Khanduri was covering up for her. On one occasion, he had the opportunity of following her to Nepal and managed to put a camera on the roof of her high priced apartment. “I got it all here in this disk, all the evidence of her colluding with Khanduri to blow the cover of Sinha and Ajay. I also have a copy made and it is buried here,” he said and scrawled the name of the place in the mud. In a trice, he was gone, singing Bollywood songs.
On the basis of the proofs submitted, Khanduri was caught when he tried to escape to Nepal with his fancy mistress. Both are serving time in an undisclosed maximum security prison. The Afghan got his heart’s desire, a role in an upcoming Bollywood film. And the intelligence agency was looking for an Afghan recruit with a love for Bollywood.
None of this made its way into the media. But there were changes. Raman could not go back. It would be an uphill battle to convince the Pakistanis that he was not a mole. Even if he did, it would be a matter of time before the notorious Pakistani intelligence ferrets him out. It was a pity as he had worked very hard for over 4 years to become a sergeant in the Pakistani army. He rescued many Indian prisoners and provided valuable information about the identity of Pakistani spies and their supporters in India. Yet, he knew that if he was caught, he was on his own. The Indian Government would provide little assistance. The tragic story of Ravinder Kaushik, a formidable agent who worked for India haunted him day and night. His feats as an agent were remarkable. He successfully infiltrated to become a major in the Pakistani army, passed on vital military information to the Indian army thus saving the lives of thousands of jawans. When his cover was blown by another agent, Ravinder was caught, ruthlessly tortured for 2 years, and eked out a hellish life in Pakistani jails for 18 years till death due to TB relieved his misery. His words stand as a testament to the callousness of the Indian government, “kya bharat jaise bade desh ke liye kurbani dene waalon ko yahi milta hai?” (Is this the reward a person gets for sacrificing his life for India?)
Ravinder’s tragic life forced Raman to weigh his options. Living in limbo is not a desirable thing. Neither did he want to end up like Ravinder or Sarabjit Singh in a horrible Pakistani prison. He felt frustrated at the lack of support from the Indian establishment. At times he even felt that it would be better to quit this job. He remembered what a sorely disappointed Ravinder Kaushik had said, “Had I been an American, I would have been out of here in three days.” A CIA mole like Headley is whisked away to America in a few days, but India lets its brave agents face the sad music of hard labor, torture, and ill-treatment for years and years. After some thought, he decided to join the chief’s crusade for building an army of “intelligence” workers, using retired folks and old men to enhance the intelligence gathering ability of the organization and to support the courageous agents of India and their abandoned families.
“They would come from every walk of life - the army, police, scientists, computer professionals, actors, theater artists, social workers, painters, writers, reporters, teachers, and others interested in the cause,” explained Rathod. “And they would live in their own neighborhoods. There would be recruits from every town especially from the rural and undeveloped areas. All they had to do is report on anything unusual such as a house generating more trash than usual, excess laundry from a locality, a new car in the driveway, a new person in the neighborhood, or any unusual happening in a non-happening place. When something catches their attention, all they have to do is dial a number and hang up. The number and address would be retrieved by another retired professional and an attempt made to meet the person in a discreet manner. They would wear a suitable disguise and meet in an assigned place and exchange information on the ground and promptly clean them. The next person on the relay would be a dedicated sleuth like Raman or the Afghan, and they would make the necessary plans for action, if required,” said Rathod.
Thus “Project Retaliation” was launched quietly and in a low-key manner to neutralize the hounds of espionage let loose by powerful and inimical countries. “There is no substitute for human intelligence. Even the Americans with all their electronic snooping capabilities, had to rely on the foot soldiers of the ISI in Pakistan,” said the chief. “If we had real time intelligence we would have been able to neutralize the local men who worked for Pakistan and thus prevent the horrendous 26/11 assault on Bombay.” He reminded them that even the mujahaddin presence on the lofty heights of the mountains in Kargil, was discovered by a shepherd.
The theatrical Afghan summed it all up, “No matter how much you know about the capability of the enemy such as missiles, submarines, rockets- the vital key is knowing their intentions. And that can only be judged by the uncanny human.”